National Safety Month: 5 Post-Disaster Building Inspection Tips

“Keep Each Other Safe” is the 2017 focus for the National Safety Council's (NSC) National Safety Month.

This year, the NSC is offering tips on a variety of topics, including fall hazards, jobsite fatigue, active shooter preparation, ergonomics and road safety. In addition, we'd like to offer our tips when it comes to post-disaster building inspections — what you can prepare for and how to stay safe. 

Enter at Your Own Risk
We spend a lot of time talking about preparing for disasters and key steps for recovery. One topic that doesn’t get a lot of coverage, however, is how to stay safe when you go to evaluate damage to your business immediately following a natural disaster.

Damaged buildings can contain all kinds of health and injury hazards. When entering, you could face risks of electrical shock, exposure to toxic water or substances, risks of falling objects or tripping hazards, and all kinds of other dangers. That’s why you don’t want to just walk in like it’s any other day.

5 Things to Consider During an Inspection
Before entering a building you think or know has sustained damaged, be it from a flood, tornado, hurricane, snowstorm, ice storm, earthquake or anything else, here are five things to consider:

  1. Has structural integrity been compromised? After many types of events, the biggest hazard you will face is the possibility that part or even all of a building could collapse. Before entering the building, walk around the perimeter to make sure it looks structurally sound and safe to enter. Keep an eye out for walls that are bowing or portions of the roof that have collapsed. Also consider gas lines. If you smell gas or it looks like there is the possibility a gas line ruptured or was damaged, call your gas company before doing anything else.
  2. Is there a risk of electrical shock?  Before entering the building, determine if the electricity is still on by looking to see if lights are flashing on any of your equipment or phones. You may be able to see through a window, or by simply opening the front door and looking around. If you need to go past the front door, use a flashlight for visibility. This is especially important in flooding situations as you don’t want to be caught in a puddle around live electricity. Once you are sure the power is off, then you will need to evaluate how water may have affected your electrical system, including outlets, wiring, switches, and electrical rooms before restoring and using electricity. 
  3. Can you pass through safely? Even if you spend so much time in your building that you could walk through it blindfolded, you need to proceed with caution after a disaster. You may not be able to see objects hidden in standing water, and if you don’t have a good flashlight you could trip over objects that have shifted or broken.
  4. Are there overhead dangers? Many types of disasters can create unexpected hazards from above in buildings. For example, an earthquake or flooding could cause shelving to shift, creating a risk of falling objects. Or a wind microburst could damage or destroy part of your roof, leading to falling materials or the possibility of a collapse. Also, remember to consider if something you are moving on the ground could cause a shelf or some other tall object to shift, resulting in falling objects.
  5. Do you have the proper clothing and equipment?  When you enter a damaged building, you never know what’s in the water or what types of toxic substances may have been released while you were away. Floodwater and even water from sprinklers is often contaminated and you don’t want to take anything you come in contact into your car and home to your family. Be sure to choose clothing and equipment based on known risks within the building. For example, if there is the possibility that toxic chemicals were released, be sure to have a suit and respirator on hand that will keep you safe should you come in contact with them. At the very least, wear a good pair of over boots, a Tyvek suit, a respirator or dust mask, and safety goggles to protect your civilian clothes.

Get Home Safe

Ultimately, your safety should be the number one priority during a post-event inspection. In most types of situations, the tips above will help to keep you safe, but in buildings that include medical equipment, chemicals, or other types of hazardous materials or particularly dangerous circumstances, there may be other considerations. Regardless of the circumstances—always remember what you live for and use your best judgment. If at any time you don’t feel safe, call your insurance company and request assitance. 

Sources:
http://www.nsc.org/act/events/Pages/national-safety-month.aspx

About the Author: John Hogan
John is Director of Safety at Interstate. With nearly 20 years' experience managing corporate safety programs, he specializes in developing industry leading safety processes and procedures to ensure the safety of employees, clients and the public on jobsites. John holds numerous professional certifications including OSHA 500 & 501 and Safety Management from the American Society of Safety Engineers.